Shawn's Reviews > Wieland: Or The Transformation: With Memoirs Of Carwin The Biloquist: A Fragment

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
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's review
Nov 11, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: read-horror-and-supernatural, read-lit
Read in November, 2009

I read WIELAND: OR THE TRANSFORMATION for different reasons than I think the majority will read it. I'll bet a lot of people read it because it's a very early example of the "American Novel". Most are probably assigned it for a class. Perhaps some read it because of interest in a particular aspect (religious mania, biloquisim as portrayed in popular culture...God knows). I read it as part of a general overview I've taken on of the Gothic novel and so, being a "root of American Gothic" novel, here it was and so I read...

I'm going to reverse my usual approach to these things and give my opinion first, because what little joy can be gleaned from reading WIELAND comes from it's surprises and I'll probably give those meager joys away.

So, should a casual reader read WIELAND? No, not really. The central idea is interesting but (and please know that I am quite an apologist for older writing styles) - the writing is enervating and the story not too well told. You could spend your time on much better stuff, unless you have a particular interest.

Okay, so, that out of the way, WIELAND is famous for being an American Gothic novel - why? Because, let's see, the main characters' father spontaneously combusts in the first chapter - and this isn't any Dickens "they found nothing but a heap of ash", after-the-fact kind of thing. He goes to worship in his specially built temple in the hills north of Philadelphia and pretty much explodes violently. His burned body is found. We never know why he exploded. This is unimportant to the main plot, really, or at least unrelated in a factual sense. The father is a religious oddball, so that may have some tonal import.

Then comes the second Gothic aspect. The book proper is about Clara Wieland and her brother Theodore and how they are plagued by occasional voices from nowhere, and how the sister is both attracted to and repelled by an odd but charismatic and beautifully voiced young man named Francis Carwin. These voices cause much wonderment and get our narrator, sister Clara, into a pretty pickle of suppositions about her reputation and entertaining men at odd hours and many misunderstandings are fretted over and speechified about. Clara thinks there is something odd about Carwin, and finds evidence that he is possibly a murderer.

Then, suddenly, brother Theodore kills his entire family because he hears the voice of God telling him to (wife and 5 kids!). There is no forewarning. Theodore also wants to kill Clara and Carwin because God tells him to and he is not at all sorry about his mass bloodshed. Then Carwin reveals to Clara that he can throw his voice with amazing accuracy (he is an expert mimic and also, wait for it... a Biloquist, which is to say he is a Ventriloquist without a dummy) and has been the source of all the mysterious voices, except he DID NOT cause Theodore to hear some divine, homicidal voice. Then Theodore, who is roaming the countryside, traps them in a room. Then the book ends. Then, 40-odd pages later, the book actually ends.

Coincidences abound. There is much flowery and high-falutin' talk about reputations and respect and love and such (Clara loses her dashing young boyfriend, but that's okay, she regains him in the extended ending). As the introduction by Fred Lewis Pattee states (even while trying to rehabilitate Brown's reputation), the writing is poor: sloppy and overly embellished. The wind doesn't just blow, "nature signs her resignation through her sweetest of voicings, spreading melancholy across the fair land even as she caresses the cheek of..." and on and on with much effulgence. And I usually have a pretty high tolerance for this tommyrot, as I try to place writing in its proper time period.

Even worse, Brown changed his mind about the plot halfway through, so Carwin isn't evil, he's just misunderstood and, in a twist relatable to American classic CALEB WILLIAMS, under the control of some evil man (never seen). Unfortunately, this leaves all kinds of details from earlier in the book either hanging as red herrings (drying in the salty, literary wind) or hastily wound up in a totally botched extended ending. Poo!

Carwin is kind of interesting as a character. Much has been made of the book's focus on Brother Theodore's religious mania, and that's also pretty well done and frightening (he evidences no traces of insanity, but Carwin's misguided tricks drive him crazy). Not really noted, as far as I can tell, is that Carwin is also, essentially, a creepy stalker fixated on Clara, going into her house and bedroom when she's not there, reading her diary, hiding in her enormous closet, sticking his head through the window to cast his voice to her. Creepy stalker is Carwin.

Oh, and about that last part - ventriloquism is essentially treated as superpower in this book. It has nothing to do with not moving your lips or animating a little man made of cork to distract people into thinking your voice is coming from somewhere else as you drink a glass of water and say "I vant a gottle of geer". No, if you are in a house or even wandering the countryside (and you happen to be an expert mimic as well), your target will hear the voice you cast right next to them, even when they're alone, JUST AS IF YOU ARE SPEAKING IN THEIR EAR. If you are Carwin, you can even mimic the sounds of a rampaging crowd or animals. Crazy!

As noted, Brown changed gears mightily about halfway through writing the book. At some point, Carwin was going to explain to Clara why he was doing what he was doing (other than being a creepy stalker) in the first place, but that chapter got so big that Brown broke it off and published it separately as a serial called MEMOIRS OF CARWIN THE BILOQUIST - and that's appended to the end of the book. It's a little more fun than WEILAND, especially as it unconvincingly tells us how young Carwin first learns of his amazing ability whilst looking for a lost cow on his father's farm in the Lehigh valley. Later, Carwin, a bit of a shirk-a-work, lives with his rich old aunt and gets indolent, tricking people by telling them his well-trained dog can talk.

Then, the story proper starts and Carwin is taken under the wing of the mysterious Ludloe, a seemingly beneficent and well-traveled man who appears to be training Carwin for something - but what? Indoctrination into some vast secret society, it appears, through which he can help all of mankind. But Carwin can never tell anyone of the existence of the society under pain of death (and destruction to whomever he told - isn't it always the way). But Carwin is unsure - Ludloe asks him to romance and marry a wealthy Irish women under the pretense of cataloging her late husband's archeological ephemera. Should he accept? Should he tell Ludloe about his amazing power? Might Ludloe know already and is waiting to see if Carwin doesn't tell him, thus proving his disloyalty and ending Carwin's life? And why does Ludloe have a strange map of some mysterious and remote island nation on his bookshelf, where rivers and town are marked but nothing is named? Who are the secret society? What are their goals?

Too bad we'll never know - Brown never finished it. I'm not sure, but I expect the answers would have been long-winded, overwrought and disappointing, regardless.
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